Over the course of seven seasons here, Brett Brown has turned to several colorful phrases to explain his thinking. “Horses for courses,” said in his Bostralian accent, is a go-to one.
The basic premise of the expression is putting the right players in the right environment to succeed based on the matchup and personnel surrounding them. Over the course of the year, Al Horford’s fit offensively in the starting lineup hasn’t quite fit that sentiment.
While Brown has seemed hellbent on making Horford a part of the starting lineup, he admitted in a video conference call with reporters Wednesday that the offensive fit of his starters has been “clunky.”
Part of that, Brown said, is the circumstances with the team this season.
“I do feel like the design of our team is challenging, for sure,” Brown said. “Do I think it’s built for the playoffs? Yes, I do. Do we have enough runway to pull something special off? Yes, we do. None of us can dismiss 19 out of 65 games you’ve got your starters — that’s just a real number. Ten brand new players out of 15 — that’s a real number.”
While Brown was adamant that he still believes in his team and the roster GM Elton Brand assembled, he offered that things on the offensive end could be better.
A game Brown has referenced more than once as the best version of his team is the Feb. 11 win over the Clippers. In that game, Horford came off the bench and played an important role in the victory.
When Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid got hurt, Horford was inserted back into the starting lineup and took advantage of the opportunity. In the six games before play was suspended, Horford averaged 15.8 points, nine rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from three.
So, what will Horford’s role be when/if play resumes?
It’s a big one. It’s a huge question,” Brown said. “My thought process is quite simple. I’m going to go into camp and I’m going to see stuff and feel stuff, you’ve got some preconceived ideas, obviously. I feel like whatever we thought leaving the season and now what am I going to see as we come back and we sort of haven’t played basketball in three months and the fitness and all that type of thing. I’m going to go into the three weeks and figure it out.
“I think it’s true that we’ve learned some of the things that either don’t work and you’re really in your head and you’re heart, I don’t care how much time we have, that’s probably going to be tough to pull off vs. we need to do a little bit better, I need to do a little bit better. In relation to stamping off on, ‘Here it is, this is what’s going to happen,’ I’m not doing that.
Another player that stepped up when injuries hit was Shake Milton. Aside from his 39-point outburst in L.A., Milton was proving to be a reliable player that featured a different skill set than most players on the roster.
Over Milton’s last nine games, he averaged 19.4 points and shot a ridiculous 60.5 percent on 5.4 attempts from three a game. While you can’t expect Milton to keep up that torrid pace, his ability as a ball handler and shot maker could be crucial.
While Milton did the bulk of his damage while Simmons was down, the pairing seems like a logical one going forward. Brown has spoken at length about unlocking Simmons’ ability as a screener and roller, at one point comparing Simmons to Blake Griffin in that regard. Milton excels at running the pick-and-roll and his ability to shoot makes the action a difficult cover.
I’m excited because I’m counting on him to continue on,” Brown said of Milton. “I don’t believe that what we saw is that much of an outlier. To think that he’s going to perform at that consistent level that he showed prior to the pandemic would be sort of ambitious. I do think that if he can capture the large majority of the form offensively and defensively — and obviously the shooting percentage is a huge part of that — if he can capture a large portion of what we saw, he really has a chance to come in and play a significant role in a rotation capacity in the playoffs.
If Brown knows which way he’s going with his starting lineup, he didn’t give much away. Does Horford’s fit fall into the category of “we need to do a little bit better” or will it prove to be a “that’s probably going to be tough to pull off” situation where Brown turns to Milton?
Age and experience are factors. Milton is just 23 and has played 52 NBA games with no playoff experience. We all know Horford’s resume and have seen firsthand what he’s done in the postseason.
But the diversity, versatility and flexibility Milton adds to the starting unit might outweigh that. And at that point, you get a playoff-proven big as your sixth man — albeit a handsomely paid one.
Brown has “preconceived ideas” about his rotation, but some of those might change once the team begins working out at Disney World.
“I hope to get as many as those questions out of the way in training camp,” Brown said. “I think my experience is that is an ambitious wish that oftentimes doesn’t happen as clearly as you had hoped. But in a perfect world, you’d like to go into those eight games that we’re speaking about and have some minor tweak and rotation changes as opposed to Game 5 and, ‘Oh, crap, we’ve got something that’s a little bit funky here.’”
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